Prospective neighbors of recovery service teach director grim lesson in stigma

Statesman Journal, July 14, 2015

Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy learned a lesson recently.

The executive director of Bridgeway Recovery Services, which treats people with addiction and mental illness, realized there are certain people in the Salem community who are more focused on getting rid of people with addiction rather than the illness itself.

It’s easy to judge these people, some of whom say hurtful words about addicts. But Murphy has decided he has a responsibility, too.

It all began with a building.

Bridgeway, which has five clinics around Salem, is working on expanding its outpatient treatment services. Murphy says far fewer people who need addiction services actually have access to it.

After a year of searching, they found a perfect spot in the Grant neighborhood, in the 1600 block of Summer Street. Once a nursing home and a charter school, it was the perfect size and outfitted in such a way that Bridgeway could move in and start business right away, Murphy said. Plus, it has a sizeable parking lot and it is on a bus line.

Bridgeway was close to purchasing this building, which has been empty for three years. But it was zoned for residential use, which does not suit Bridgeway’s needs. At the city’s urging, Murphy sought the support of the Grant Neighborhood Association.

Murphy went to three meetings in April, May and June to talk to the neighbors. In April, the attendance of the meeting wasn’t great, so the board asked Murphy to return in June. Seventy-eight people showed up, according to the minutes. Typically, the neighborhood association meetings attract 15 to 20 people.

Murphy remembers the meeting being “two hours of strong verbal objection.”

Here’s how the meeting went, according to the minutes:

A resident said the neighborhood already has problems with the people who frequent the neighborhood smoke shop, a women’s post-incarceration treatment facility and the Jason Lee United Methodist Church food bank. Another neighbor was concerned about the clientele smoking, trespassing, littering and vandalizing the neighborhood. Others feared intoxicated, belligerent people walking about, and whether the patients would be criminals.

Murphy explained to the group that Bridgeway offers smoking cessation help and that most people seeking this type of care are “functional members of society.”

Not everyone had such harsh words for Murphy. Others said they did not want the zone change or that they didn’t want the traffic associated with an outpatient clinic. Some said the Grant neighborhood has enough — or too many — social service programs.

Some supported the project, including a neighbor whose brother died of an overdose.

But the sting of many opponents stuck in Murphy’s mind. He decided he needed to do more to educate the greater community about addiction and treatment.

“We were met with a lot of fear and that fear was based on a lack of knowledge of how successful treatment can be and lack of knowledge of how widespread the disease is,” Murphy said. “People still see chemical dependency and alcoholism as a moral failure, rather than a disease that happened to them.”

Sam Skillern, who is on the board of the Grant Neighborhood Association and is the executive director of Salem Leadership Foundation, said that he, too, was surprised by the neighborhood’s reaction.

Someone in the meeting passed out fliers about a Bridgeway in Florida, where a staff member was hurt by a patient, suggesting the same could happen in their own neighborhood. But Salem’s Bridgeway has no relationship to the one that was referenced.

Another neighbor said a meth user could kill a counselor then come for the rest of the neighbors, Skillern said.

He said he was disappointed by some comments that crossed the line.

“The characterizations they used to describe those folks were pretty hurtful,” he said.

Murphy realized at the May meeting that the building he set his eyes on would not be a possibility. For now, he has moved on and is continuing the search. He’d like to come back to it, if one day the neighbors could support the project.

But he has also committed to himself and his staff to put Bridgeway out in the community more. He vows that Salem will see Bridgeway more often, as leaders and partners to other causes. In September, Bridgeway will sponsor a 5K walk/run. It has also made a video recently that was posted on its social media sites. He also vowed to speak with me more often.

And when his work is done, people might see his view: “This isn’t a public safety issue. It’s a public health issue.”